Hostile Environment Sexual Harassment—It’s Not Just the Monday Blues

We have all been there. The alarm goes off in the morning. You get out of bed all dizzy, wondering if you need that job after all. You dream about going back to bed for a little bit longer while getting ready for the new work week in the office. No matter how much you love your job, there will be times when you’re not too excited about it, and that is normal.

If the reason for your discouragement comes from seeing that colleague who makes your life a living hell again, then that is not so normal. You might be experiencing hostile environment harassment, and you’re not alone.

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the government agency that processes reported harassment complaints. In 2019, they received 72,675 charges of workplace discrimination, with 32.4% of charges falling under sex discrimination, and 10.3% labeled explicitly as sexual harassment. Don’t be fooled by the seemingly low numbers—the EEOC estimates that up to 75% of workplace harassment situations go unreported. 

What Is Hostile Environment Harassment?

Hostile environment sexual harassment falls under a broader category of hostile environment harassment. The hostile environment at work is created when there is discriminatory behavior which is continued, or severe, and makes someone feel intimidated, threatened, unsafe, or abused. The discrimination can occur on different bases, but the most common are:

  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation and gender identity
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Age
  • Disability

Hostile environment harassment can take many different forms. The perpetrators can do it consciously or unintentionally. The harassment has to be recurring to create a hostile working atmosphere that limits the victim’s focus and productivity or brings more severe damage. Isolated incidents, even if it’s an attempt to start a sexual relationship, which is not reciprocated, don’t count as harassment. 

These are some of the most pervasive hostile environment harassment examples that can help you define whether you’ve experienced it or not:

  • Offensive jokes based on someone’s race, ethnicity, religion, etc. 
  • Physical obstruction, e.g., someone preventing you from leaving your workspace
  • Racist behavior, including the usage of racial slurs
  • Frequent discriminatory mocking, teasing, and name-calling
  • Any form of unwelcome touching
  • Other actions that are demeaning or abusive

What Is Hostile Environment Sexual Harassment?

Any repetitive, unwanted behavior that has a sexual connotation and creates a hostile work environment for the victim is considered to be hostile environment sexual harassment. This type of harassment includes, but is not limited to:

  1. Sexual jokes
  2. Persistent sexual advances, even if the perpetrator has been asked to stop
  3. Discussion on sexual activities, even if it is about other people
  4. Comments regarding someone’s physical appearance
  5. Displays of sexual materials, like posters, calendars, pictures
  6. Sending emails with sexual jokes and images
  7. Staring at someone with sexual innuendo 
  8. Unwanted physical contact, including hugging

Hostile environment sexual harassment, with quid pro quo harassment, are the most frequent types of sexual harassment in a workplace in the United States. Even though it can happen to anyone, women experience harassment more often. Out of all processed sexual harassment charges by the EEOC in 2019, a mere 16.8% were filed by men. 

The numbers in this survey should be taken with caution. Due to victim-shaming and fear of retaliation, most women who experience sexual harassment at work don’t do anything about it. The odds are that the hostile environment sexual harassment is substantially more common than the official data shows. 

The Difference Between Hostile Environment and Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment

Categorizing sexual harassment is challenging since, at times, different categories can overlap, like in the example of this Reddit user. In specific cases, one person can be exposed to several different types of harassment and have issues to differentiate between them. Yet this difference might be crucial to the way harassment is addressed later. 

Imagine this situation: you work hard to meet all the expectations and even go beyond. There is a chance of promotion at the end of this fiscal year, and you want that team-leader position for yourself. After all, you’ve heard nothing but praise from your superiors. One day, your direct manager asks you to come to his office and shut the door behind you. You are excited as this is an important day for your career development. He continues to praise your performance, and offers you the new position, but only if you find a way to return the favor. His intentions are clear from the tone of his voice to the lustful look on his face. That initial excitement evaporates fast, and you’re left with a feeling of cold dread. 

This case could be taught in Sexual Harassment 101, but it would be an example of quid pro quo sexual harassment at the workplace. In terms of harassment, quid pro quo implies an unwelcome exchange, a sort of sexual barter between a figure of authority and a subordinate.

Here’s a table that could help you understand the difference between these two categories better:

Hostile Environment Sexual Harassment

Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment

  • Usually comes from peers and team members, but can come from a supervisor as well
  • Has to be recurring
  • Doesn’t require any exchange of favors 
  • Doesn’t put employment benefits at risk
  • Affects the victim primarily, but can create a hostile environment for other employees who are not the intended targets
  • Comes from a supervisor or another authority figure
  • One instance is enough for legal action
  • Requires unwanted “this for that” exchange—sex for promotions, raises, desired shifts, days-off, positive reviews, etc.
  • Usually affects only the victim as it happens in “one-on-one” scenarios

What Doesn’t Count as Hostile Environment Sexual Harassment?

Not every situation that makes you unhappy at work counts as hostile environment harassment. Even discrimination on other grounds, doesn’t count as sexual harassment if it’s about someone’s religion or ethnicity. Different situations might seem like you’re sexually harassed, but they don’t count as such. 

Before proceeding with any complaints or accusations, it is best to familiarize yourself in detail with what it means when someone is harassing you. Here are some examples of what situations don’t count as hostile environment sexual harassment or hostile environment harassment in general:

  1. A colleague is asking you out or flirting with you, but you don’t find them attractive—Though this may be unpleasant or uninvited, it is not illegal. If you respond negatively to the advances, but they continue, you might have a case of harassment 
  2. A coworker is talking loudly, leaning over your desk—It might be obnoxious and rude, but it doesn’t count as harassment
  3. A teammate is oversharing about their personal life and relationships—You might be working with a chatty Cathy, and though it is unpleasant, it is not seen as harassment
  4. You are feeling underpaid, overworked, with no opportunities to advance in your career—Your job may suck, but you cannot label it as a case of a hostile environment based on that

Experiencing Hostile Environment Sexual Harassment Online

The relationships forged in a workplace continue on the Internet all the time. If you work with someone and know their name, it is super easy to find them on social media, for better or for worse. While you’re not obliged to interact with your colleagues in this domain, many of us often do. Since it’s so easy to find and reach someone via new technologies, opportunities for harassment that extends beyond workspace abound. 

From creating a Facebook group to talking trash about a colleague or leaking someone’s inappropriate photos, disturbing social media behavior impacts the way we think about workplace harassment. Being exposed to a hostile environment at work is one thing, but that hostility can spill over into your free time and personal life. 

If you get harassing phone calls, emails, constant messages, likes, and comments on different channels from that coworker who keeps making lewd remarks and overtly sexual jokes at your expense, this might mean you have a stalker. In the 21st century, hostile environment sexual harassment can move towards cyberstalking in a second, and it’s one more reason to explore the options to protect yourself

Consequences of Hostile Environment Sexual Harassment

Any sexual harassment situation can lead to severe consequences for the victim. Even worse is the fact that many cases stay unreported. This means nothing is done about them, and the harmful effects of harassment keep growing. Dealing with sexual harassment on your own is a considerable burden, and you shouldn’t be ashamed of asking for help. Besides the adverse effects it has on individuals, sexual harassment, with hostile environment harassment included, has a negative impact on companies as well.

Costs to Individuals

Here are some of the most common consequences of workplace harassment when it comes to individuals:

  1. The lack of career development opportunities—Harassment can limit the chances of moving up in the hierarchy. To avoid the coworker or the manager harassing them, victims choose to drop out of projects or give up leadership opportunities when they arise
  2. Resignations, unemployment, and forced job changes—Depending on how severe the harassment is, some victims, mostly women, might give up their jobs and look for other career paths, which can carry significant financial strains
  3. Endangered mental and physical healthMultiple studies warn about prolonged adverse effects of sexual harassment on the victim’s overall well-being. The most pervasive examples can be found in the table below:

Physical Consequences

Emotional Consequences

Mental Health Consequences

  • Poor sleep patterns
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Bigger chances of work-related injuries
  • Feeling powerless
  • Feeling angry and resentful
  • Experiencing humiliation
  • Experiencing shame and blaming yourself
  • Losing motivation
  • Depression
  • PTSD
  • Higher anxiety levels
  • Self-doubt
  • Panic attacks

Cost to Companies

Not only victims benefit from fewer cases of hostile environment sexual harassment, but businesses as well. Some of the most frequent repercussions for companies that don’t do anything about recognizing and eradicating sexual harassment are:

  1. Legal costs—Going to court and paying the victims if your company is found guilty can cost a lot of money. It is in everybody’s best interest to do everything possible to prevent such charges
  2. Higher turnover rates—The costs related to replacing an employee who decides to quit due to harassment can go higher than legal fees. One study from 2017 found that targets of harassment are 6.5 times more likely to seek a new position elsewhere than non-targets. There are also consequences of bad reputation once the word about harassment gets out
  3. Reductions in productivity rates—It is not difficult to imagine that being exposed to hostile environment sexual harassment leads to lower job satisfaction and decreased productivity. Even if it doesn’t end in the employee’s resignation, it is very likely it will cost the company some serious coin

How to Handle Hostile Environment Sexual Harassment?

Hostile environment sexual harassment, like other type of sexual harassment, is illegal under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which means that you can sue your colleague or your supervisor in such situations. Since taking legal actions requires lawyers and court fees while the outcome remains uncertain, you might want to research what else you can do if you experience sexual harassment at work. Here is some advice:

  1. Start with an internal complaint—Your HR department has likely established policies and procedures for sexual harassment cases, including hostile environment sexual harassment. You might fear retaliation, but remember that you are protected by the Civil Rights Act and other anti-discrimination laws from possible punitive actions by your employer
  2. Get evidence that the company was aware—If you end up in court, any evidence you may provide regarding the harassment might prove to be crucial for the success of your claim. That’s why you need to report harassment to the HR or your supervisor right away and document all the meetings 
  3. Get witnesses—If you feel like you’re in a hostile environment at work, see if anyone else has similar experiences that could support your claim. Maybe someone witnessed the harassment, which could be invaluable for your case 
  4. Research the relevant laws—The anti-discrimination laws work on a federal level, but they have their limitations. If the complaint is based on age discrimination, it won’t apply to companies with fewer than 20 employees. Knowledge is power, so make sure to review your state and local laws as well
  5. Keep proof of everything—If you’re thinking about doing something to fight hostile environment sexual harassment, start documenting every situation in which you felt harassed. Make sure to include voice recordings, emails, notes, letters, voicemails, keep track of dates and times. You can include proof of how the harassment affected you, like performance reviews or your medical records. Remember that you won’t have a case unless you can show that harassment happened more than once 

DoNotPay Can Help with Hostile Environment Sexual Harassment!

If you experience hostile environment sexual harassment firsthand and you’re not sure what to do about it, DoNotPay can help. Dealing with such an issue is extremely stressful as you might not know what the appropriate course of action is or whether you might risk losing your job if you go too far. Things can get worse if the harassment continues outside of your office on social media and other platforms. 

DoNotPay created an option that makes the first step in standing up against harassment simple and effective:

  1. Log into your DoNotPay account in your web browser or iPhone app
  2. Hit Relationship Protection
  3. When the chatbot starts a conversation, choose Safety and Stalking
  4. Answer the chatbot’s questions regarding your case
  5. Feel free to add any information you find important to you 

DoNotPay virtual legal team will pick the best course of action for your problem and provide you with documents that can help you stop the harassment. Some solutions may include a cease and desist letter. In case you’re trying to stop a stalker that harasses you online, DoNotPay can reach out to social media representatives to report the perpetrator. The online platform should block the harasser. 

See What Else DoNotPay Can Do for You!

If hostile environment sexual harassment is not the only thing causing you headaches, you can ask DoNotPay for help and make your life easier. Our app can be handy in fighting all kinds of harassment or learning everything you need to know about restraining orders. DoNotPay can assist with various wrongdoings and administrative injustice as well. 

Legal terms and legislation confuse people and make fighting for your rights seem difficult. DoNotPay wants to streamline the process and make it as easy as possible. 

All you have to do is log on DoNotPay in your web browser or access it by using the iOS app. You will find clear instructions on how to solve some problems that plague your everyday existence, including: